Missouri’s greatest football win may have come on September 8, 1975. This was the date that the Tigers rose to national attention by beating Bear Bryant’s Alabama team 20-7 in Birmingham. The Tide had gone undefeated for the last two regular seasons. The Tigers’ win was a David vs. Goliath moment, a sort of “rewriting of the script,” and it couldn’t have occurred without the help of all-conference cornerback Kenny Downing.
Downing is credited with a first-half interception that swept the momentum in favor of the Tigers. He was later picked by the New Orleans Saints in the 13th round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He didn’t last long in the NFL but enjoyed a modest career in the CFL.
Downing happens to be the father of Tigers running back Dawson Downing. The younger Downing is attempting to “rewrite the script,” too, . He hopes to show that walk-ons, even in the uber-talented SEC, can becomes stars in their own right.
Fans may recognize Downing’s name because of his success in the spring game. Due to returnees Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter being held out for precautionary reasons, Downing was given a chance to start.
Walk on RB Dawson Downing with a big run, followed by a goal line touchdown in Missouri's Spring Game pic.twitter.com/EaOMhdByXy— ZouGifs (@ZouCast) April 16, 2017
After the spring game, Drew Lock had praise for the freshman running back.
“I saw a good Dawson Downing today, I didn’t see the great Dawson Downing that I see every single day, and that’s a compliment to him. [...] I watched him on Time Warner Cable when he was playing at bishop miege and running kids over just like he is now.”
A 6’0, 220-pound all-state running back for Bishop Miege, the younger Downing ran for 1,955 yards and 31 scores two years ago, finishing 13-0 and leading his team to its first ever 4A-I state title. He had offers from some lower-level schools, including Columbia, but he told his father he wanted to walk on at Missouri.
"I asked him if it was a legacy thing, like does he want to follow his dad or something?" the former Tiger said. "And he goes, 'Oh, hell no, Dad. That was 40 years ago. They don't even remember you.' And I was like, 'Hey, good point.'"
Downing used his redshirt freshman year to soak in all the Mizzou program had to offer.
“Being a redshirt, you do the exact same thing as everyone else,” he said. “Just being a walk-on running back, you don’t get to be in the games. You have all the morning workouts, all the afternoon practices and meetings.”
Because of the camaraderie between all players in the Tiger locker room, Downing was able to grow under the guidance of more seasoned vets.
“They’re really good to just learn behind,” Downing said of Crockett and Witter, the latter he chose as a role model.
“He’s a good person just to be around,” Downing said of Witter. “He’s a good leader and role model.”
Missouri has had a few walk-ons in the past who have become key players — receiver Tommy Saunders, kickers Jeff Wolfert and Christian Brinser, lineman Colin Brown, running back Tyler Hunt, who had his own unique path with Mizzou.
As Downing looks to follow in their footsteps, it is clear that the title of “walk-on” will not be a barrier to playing time.
“Unless I had heard of some guys being big recruits, I had no idea they were walk-ons,” Downing said.
The family atmosphere of the Tigers clubhouse is a place where star ratings and college offers don’t mean a thing after players get to Columbia.
There are currently five running backs under scholarship next year, but both Witter and Nate Strong are upperclassmen. This past February, Travell Lumpkin passed up scholarship offers from D1 schools like Houston and Texas Tech to become a preferred walk-on with Missouri. The competition will be fierce but so too is the motivation for Downing to earn himself a scholarship.
This fall, Downing may start the season a ways down on the depth chart but don’t let that fool you. Downing is more than all his labels: whether they read red-shirt, walk-on or son of Ken, Dawson is paving his own way.